VATICAN CITY — St Peter’s Square, Vatican City, was packed ahead of today’s canonisation of two of the 20th Century’s great popes, but hustling tour guides and a hint of the fairground were reminders that it will be a show as well as a solemn ceremony.
More than a million people are expected in and around the square to see Pope Francis I declare as saints John XXIII, the Italian pontiff who launched the modernising Second Vatican Council in 1962 and John Paul II, the revered Pole who led the Church for almost 27 years before his death in 2005.
Groups of pilgrims from Poland to Paraguay have come to attend the ceremony, drawn partly by the appeal of Francis, who has injected fresh enthusiasm into many Catholics since his appointment just over a year ago. The fame of the two popes being canonised has also attracted the faithful.
“I feel very happy because both of them inspire us,” Father Emmanuel Emeka, a priest from Nigeria, said.
“I think both of them have a lot to teach us.”
As has been true since Christian pilgrims began arriving in Rome more than 1 500 years ago, religious devotion exists side by side with the excitement of a holiday despite gloomy weather.
Tour guides in coloured T-shirts offered bus tours of the city and promised to get groups into Saint Peter’s Basilica without the need for long queueing. Beggars circled wide-eyed tourists from as far away as Africa or Japan.
Alfredo Chiarelli, one of a small group of street merchants known as urtisti, Italian for people who stop you on the street, has been busy selling religious souvenirs.
He engages curious tourists who stop to look at his tray of crucifixes, medallions and special rose-scented rosaries, his biggest seller.
“It’s Pope Francis who has done this, he’s really got through to people,” he said, adding that the surge of interest in Francis had helped make up for pressure from cheaper Chinese-made wares and tighter spending in the economic downturn.
“So far, most people have been interested in images of the Argentinian-born pope and articles connected with John Paul II, whose death brought huge crowds to Saint Peter’s chanting Santo subito!, calling for him to be made a saint immediately.”
— Vatican City